Creating and maintaining structure and routine during times of crisis
During these tumultuous and uncertain times of living with COVID-19, our sense of “normalcy” has become a memory, but structure and routine are very important. As we attempt to navigate unchartered waters, anxiety, fear, isolation and depression arise. Our daily routines of school, work, socializing, visiting the gym, shopping, spiritual community, dining out, movie theaters and travel have been disrupted, as well as our circadian rhythms. Our sense of belonging and meaning in the world is overshadowed by daily news reports of suffering, economic crisis, hopelessness and being out of control.
Children are no longer in school, and some parents are working remotely with deadlines while juggling childcare and home schooling. For those who cannot work remotely, paying bills and providing for their families becomes a struggle for survival. The unfortunate truth is that nobody knows how much longer all of this might last. It’s imperative we create ways to cope and manage while living with a pandemic.
Lack of structure can create endless days that run together without a sense of grounding and devoid of meaning. According to Philadelphia therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, “People can become depressed or anxious because structure can provide an understanding of what’s next and it can help us organize what we’re doing in each moment. But without it we start to forget what our purpose is. It’s the perfect storm for creating a bunch of really difficult feelings at the same time: sadness, guilt, anxiety.”
Routines can be an anchor. The predictability of our routine can help manage the uncertainty that we currently experience during the coronavirus pandemic. Coping with unpredictability can feel more comforting when we have some structure in place to act as a guide. The knowledge that we will eat our evening meal at 6 pm and go to bed around 10 pm can be reassuring.
According to Mimi Winsberg, psychiatrist and co-founder of Brightside, a digital mental health company focused on depression and anxiety, asserts that structure and routine provides a sense of security. “The reassurance of a predictable routine calms nerves without us even realizing it,” she says. “When structure or routine vanishes suddenly because of something outside your control, it can feel like having a rug pulled out from under you.”
Our traditional 9-to-5 routine keeps us anchored to predictable rituals: arising at a certain time, doing the same commute, eating lunch at noon, etc. This routine provided clear ways to designate when activities started and ended; however, at home it’s much more difficult to mark those distinctions.
It is important to remember that children not only need structure, but they thrive on it. Structure reduces anxiety by providing predictability and security. The school day is structured with predictable schedules and expectations. When this structure is disrupted, children can experience increased anxiety and associated behaviors, especially during this uncertain time.
Not only will having a plan help us stay centered, it keeps us focused on the tasks at hand. A study published in the Annual Review of Psychology on psychological habits showed people rely on their routines and habits when they are stressed. These routines and habits support people to get through difficult times, suggesting that establishing healthy routines can help with physical, emotional and mental health during difficult times like these.
Establish A Routine
The morning routine can set the tone for the rest of the day. Before the day begins, expressing gratitude for something or someone can have a significant impact on our mental well-being. The heaviness and despair of our current situation can weigh us down and lead to a sense of gloom and doom. A study published in the journal Psychotherapy Research found that writing a gratitude letter can improve a person’s outlook and emotional well-being and can change brain activity in a positive way, based on MRI scans of study participants.
It may come as a surprise, but the first task of the day should be bed making. By making your bed, this declutters your space. A decluttered space lowers the level of stress. Clutter can contribute to feelings of disorganization and being out of the control. A tidy space is very calming especially amid chaos. You can create your own calming sanctuary at home, and increased sense of well-being. If remote work is being done in the bedroom, then every effort to create a tranquil environment will result in lower stress levels and higher productivity.
In a 2014 commencement speech at University of Texas at Austin, Navel Admiral William McRaven shared his thoughts on the matter. “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another,” he said. “By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.”
Although it might be tempting to lounge in our pajamas all day, getting dressed connects us to our “normal” routine. It may not be necessary to dress up in our office attire, but the simple act of changing clothes serves as a gesture to wake up and become productive. Getting dressed can help both adults and children feel more “human” especially during this time when our routines are disrupted, and we feel cutoff from the “real” world. Showering, grooming, oral hygiene and even applying make-up if this is usual is an important part of a self-care routine that can enhance a sense of well-being and maintain our physical health.
The stress we experience also exacerbates cravings for those things that bring us immediate gratification such as junk food and alcohol. Nevertheless, eating healthier foods can help affect our moods and help manage stress and strengthen the immune system. A growing body of research is revealing not only the power of specific nutrients to increase well-being, but also the multifaceted ways in which our attitude and choices regarding food impact our state of mind.
Learning new recipes and different ways to prepare healthier foods can bolster better nutrition. When we feel stressed, it can be difficult to plan, cook, and eat a balanced diet. A routine can help with this, because it allows us to block out time for cooking, eating, and cleaning up afterwards. Meal preparation, eating together at designated times and cleaning up can become a new family ritual to increase a sense of connectedness and predictability. This can also provide children with new and valuable skills to carry out throughout their lives.
Sleep and mental health are closely connected. Sleep deprivation affects your psychological state and mental health. Individuals with mental health problems are more likely to have insomnia or other sleep disorders. So, during times of high stress, sleep is of utmost importance. In addition to following a routine, another way that you can ensure a healthy night’s rest for you and your family is to engage in being active during the day.
Good “sleep hygiene” includes maintaining a regular sleep-and-wake schedule, using the bedroom only for sleeping or sex, and keeping the bedroom dark and free of distractions like the computer or television. Children need a predictable routine to prepare for bed and sleep. Turning off screen time two hours prior to going to bed reduces over stimulation. Reading, storytelling, listening to calming music, bath time and massage can promote relaxation and improved sleep.
Reaping the benefits of exercise or any type of physical activity are enormous from relieving stress to improved sleep. Incorporating physical activity into your regular structure and routine is essential for adults, teens and children. If going to the gym was a regular part of your routine, take advantage of the free classes offered on-line from yoga, Pilates, Zumba and gym workouts.
Create a dance space for the entire family to enjoy moving together. Spending time outside taking walks, riding bikes or scooters increases exposure to Vitamin D which is essential for bone health and warding off depression. Be mindful of maintaining six feet distance outdoors as well. Devoting time in nature promotes a sense of tranquility and can be a reminder of the beauty that still exists amidst the despair. Studies have shown that among adults, group nature walks have been linked with lower depression, less stress and better mental health and well-being.
Structure and routine are beneficial for managing our mental, emotional and physical health. The predictability of routine can provide comfort and security during uncertain times. It’s also important to make time for rest, relaxation, creative pursuits and having fun. Routines should not become so rigid to the point where flexibility is not possible, or they cause us more stress. Routines will change as our lives change, and this can help us become more adaptable to change. Establishing a routine can help us cultivate positive daily habits, provide a sense of meaning and purpose, but most importantly help us feel anchored during chaotic times.
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